Two Pictures from Different Ages – Compare and Contrast!

I was recently in Burgos, Spain and saw the splendid cathedral there. My first view of it came at night and I took the photo above. What a magnificent building; such proportion and symmetry! It reminds me of tall trees in a forest, majestically reaching up to the heavens. The flying buttresses supporting the soaring walls and towers showcase a great advance in building technique.

These were the skyscrapers of the Middle Ages. Such angular, geometric, and vertical beauty; almost like a forest, a fair flower of the 13th century echoing God’s creation and pointing to Him in a great work of human praise.

Two medieval phrases come to mind in the beauty of this building:

      • Beauty is id quod visum placet – Beauty is that which pleases when seen.
      • Pulchra dicuntur quae visa placent – Things that give pleasure when seen are called beautiful.

A mere thirty yards from this beautiful cathedral in the town square is something that is not beautiful in any traditional sense. I took the photo of it that is on the left. It was not uplifting and seemed to correspond to nothing in creation (unless one were to imagine a dinosaur dropping or a huge stumbling block). Like most modern abstract art, it looks more to me like someone’s nightmare. It seems to have little to say other than “Try to figure me out, you ignoramus.” Indeed, that is what I am usually called by art critics when I express dismay at these sorts of ugly blobs that clutter too many of our public squares and “art” museums.

Some disparagingly refer to the Middle Ages as the “dark ages” while referring to the current age as “enlightened.” Certainly, no age is perfect, but compare and contrast the two items in the photos here: uplifting, soaring, and inspiring; the other is dark and brooding, and its meaning is opaque. One is an uplifting building from the 13th century, the other a dark “who knows what” from the 20th century. Based on representational art, which age seems more inspiring? Which seems more enlightened? Decide for yourself, but I’ll take the 13th century!

Generally speaking, the idea at work in modern art is that it is merely the expression of the artist. We who view it are supposed to respect the artist expressing himself. This is largely a outgrowth of the subjectivism that fills our time.

The ancient idea however was that art is recta ratio factibilium (right reason in regard to things that are made). So the ancient ideal in things to be made, including art that the focus is not me, is not the artist, it is whether the art reflects conformity to the way a reasonable person can perceive the world. This does not mean that every painting must be like a photograph, or that sculpture should be an exact replica of what is. But it does mean that it has some conformity with reality that a reasonable person can perceive. So much modern art (not all) is either meaningless, or has no set meaning, it does not appeal to our reason or speak to our communal understanding of the reality about us.

Hence, St. Thomas Aquinas (also from the 13th century) spoke of beauty as consisting of integritas, consonantia, and claritas.  He writes,

For beauty includes three conditions: “integrity” or “perfection,” since those things which are impaired are by the very fact ugly; due “proportion” or “harmony”; and lastly, “brightness” or “clarity,” whence things are called beautiful which have a bright color [Summa Theologica I, 38, art 8].

In applying these criteria to art and architecture, we might consider the following:

Integritas (Integrity) – This speaks to the manner in which something echoes the beauty of what God has done. Thomas says that every created being is beautiful because God gives beauty to all created beings by a certain participation in the divine beauty. Therefore, human art and architecture are said to have integrity insofar as they participate in and point to the divine beauty of things. This need not mean an exact mimicry, but it does require at least a respectful glance to creation, holding forth some aspect of it so as to edify us with better and higher things. The cathedral pictured above points to a majestic forest as its form, its soaring stone to the mountains. Its colored glass allows the natural light to dazzle the eye and tell the stories of the Gospels. It is a sermon in glass and stone. As such, it has integrity, because it puts forth God’s glory. I’m not sure what the dark metal blob says. To what does it point? I have no idea. Because it is not integrated into the glory of creation (in any way that I can discern, at least) it does not have integrity. Rather, it seems to mock creation. If you think it is beautiful and has integrity, I invite you to explain why and how; I am at a loss to see any meaning at all in it.

Consonantia (Proportion) – This refers to the order and unity within a given thing. What God creates has a unity and purpose in its parts, which work together in an orderly fashion to direct something to its proper function or end. Thus, art and architecture intrinsically bespeak a unity and functionality, or they point to it extrinsically. They make sense of the world and respect what is given, reflecting the beauty of order, purpose, and design that God has set forth. The cathedral is beautiful because its parts act together in an orderly and harmonious way. There is balance, proportion, and symmetry. There is a recta ratio factibilium (something made according to right reason). As such, the building participates in God’s good order, and that is a beautiful thing. As for the dark metal “blob” (I don’t know what else to call it), it doesn’t seem to me to have any proportion. It is roundish, but not really. Does it have parts? Do they work together for some end? If so, what end? I cannot tell. Rather than pointing to order, it makes me think of chaos. I see no beauty echoed or pointed to.

Claritas (Clarity) – It is through clarity that we can answer the question “What is it?” with some degree of precision and understanding. Claritas also refers to the brightness or radiance of a thing. Something of God’s glory shines through; something about it gives light; something teaches us and reminds us of God—and God and light are beautiful. The gorgeous cathedral reflects the light shining on it, even at night. During the day it proclaims the glory of God by its soaring majesty, its sculptures, its windows, its order, its proportionality. It is a bright light showing forth the brightness of God and participating in it. As for the metal thing, it seems more to suck the light out of the room; it broods. I see no clarity, no brightness. I still cannot answer the question that clarity demands: “What is it?” There is no clear message. As such, it lacks beauty.

The criteria of beauty discussed here cannot be used for labeling things “beautiful” with absolute certainty, as if by applying a formula. They are more like guidelines to help us pin down some notion of beauty that is not purely subjective. Not all these criteria must be met for an object to be considered beautiful, and the presence of one does not guarantee beauty.

So again, you decide for yourself. Each of the two structures pictured above is representative of its age. Were the Dark Ages really so dark? Is ours really so enlightened? Compare and contrast!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Two Pictures from Different Ages – Compare and Contrast!

Prophecies of Mary and Her Role

The birth of Jesus was prophesied in many and varied places in the Old Testament. The birth of John the Baptist was also prophesied (Malachi 4:5-6; Matt. 11:14). But Mary, the Mother of Jesus our Lord, had her birth and existence prophesied as well. On this her birthday let’s take a look at some of those texts with some commentary from me. 

We begin right at the beginning in the Book of Genesis. Original Sin had just been committed by Adam and Eve. Eve said the serpent deceived her. God put Satan under a curse and then pointed forward to a new Eve who would say, “yes” where Eve had said, “no.” God warned Satan:   

And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Gen. 3:15)

God therefore points to Mary and to the unique quality of her motherhood. She alone brought forth our Savior who, by his divine power and human obedience crushed the head of Satan. And, since women are not said to have seed, this unusual phrase attributed to Mary, points to her as being the sole source of Christ’s humanity (by God’s power) and that the Heavenly Father was Jesus’ true Father. 

A second prophecy of Mary comes in Isaiah. King Ahaz is resisting Isaiah’s message not to fear Aram and Ephraim who are poised to invade Judah. When King Ahaz is told to ask for a sign he refused. Isaiah impatiently replies thus: 

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call Him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)

Many modern Scripture scholars dismiss this as a reference to Mary, arguing it could not be a sign for Ahaz who died hundreds of years before its fulfillment. They also argue that “virgin” could just mean “maiden” (or young wife) and not refer to a true virgin conceiving. But apparently the Holy Spirit and St. Matthew never got the memo since they apply this Prophecy to Mary. (cf Matt, 1:23)

Isaiah also points to Mary in the following text. And while contextually he speaks of Jerusalem allegorically as a Mother giving birth, the details were only fulfilled by Mary.

This is what the LORD says: “Heaven is My throne, and earth is My footstool. What kind of house will you build for Me? Or where will My place of repose be? Has not My hand made all these things?And so they came into being,” declares the LORD. “This is the one I will esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at My word….Hear the uproar from the city; listen to the voice from the temple! “Before she was in labor, she gave birth; before she was in pain, she delivered a boy. Who has heard of such as this? Who has seen such things? (Is 66:1-2; 6-8)

This text is why many of the Church Fathers teach that Mary brought forth Jesus miraculously and without the pain of childbirth. Although the people of Isaiah’s time did not see or hear of such things, those of Jesus’ time have heard and seen it fulfilled. 

The Prophet Micah also points to Mary in the following text: 

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come forth for Me One to be ruler over Israel—One whose origins are of old, from the days of eternity. Therefore Israel will be abandoned until she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of His brothers will return to the children of Israel. (Micah 5:2-3)

Yes, salvation would wait until Mary was born, said “yes” in the place of Eve’s “no” and, by God’s power, brought forth Jesus our eternal savior and ruler. 

The following text is from he Book of Revelation. And, since it was written after the birth and life of Christ on this earth it is not, strictly speaking, a prophecy. However, it is in the form of a meta-history. As such, it poetically and sweepingly writes of the great conflicts between good and evil, God and Satan that raged before Christ and, to a lesser degree after. I have here rearranged the text a bit to unite the heavenly war verses: 

And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed in the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and crying out in the pain and agony of giving birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: a huge red dragon with seven heads, ten horns, and seven royal crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars from the sky, tossing them to the earth….Then a war broke out in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But the dragon was not strong enough, and no longer was any place found in heaven for him and his angels. And the great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

We see here a kind of heavenly prophecy of Mary in the sign of the Woman clothed with the sun who was pregnant and giving birth. Ancient traditions hold that when God revealed his plans to save humanity by joining them, Lucifer, a high ranking angel balked at the plan and pridefully resisted it. Angels were far more worthy of God’s  gifts than the mud doll humans. Lucifer thus led a rebellion and there was war in heaven. 

And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, ready to devour her child as soon as she gave birth. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. And her child was caught up to God and to His throne. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where God had prepared a place for her to be nourished for 1,260 days.

There are many layers here. Historically, the woman can only be Mary since the Son she gives birth to can only be Christ. Allegorically the woman can also represent Israel and the Church. Though Satan sought Christ and searched for him all his earthly life, after an apparent victory at the Cross, the text tells us that Jesus was caught up to heaven where he is enthroned. The woman fleeing into the wilderness may remind us of the flight into Egypt but the 1260 days (three and a half months) is more likely a reference to yet another layer of this text, wherein Mary images the early Church. In 70 AD the early Church in Jerusalem fled to desert to the city of Pella as the Romans laid siege tot he City for three and a half months.  

The wrenching depiction of Revelation 12 ends with an ominous note: 

And the dragon was enraged at the woman, and went to make war on the rest of her children, who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus. And the dragon stood on the shore of the sea.

Here too, we can note that the woman is both Mary and the Church. Mary as Mother of Christ is also our Mother since we are members of the Body of Christ. And, if Mary gave birth to the Head of the Church (Christ) she also gave birth to the Body of Christ and all its members. The Church too is mother to us since she is the Bride of Christ as we are born from the chaste union of Christ and his Bride, the Church. And here we see a prophecy that we who are the children of Mary and the Church will suffer persecution in this “paradise lost.” We therefore must cling to our Mother the Church and to Mary. We must also cling to the Lord and his sacraments for we have an enemy, Satan, and he stands on the shore of the sea (the sea was a symbol for chaos) looking for opportunities. 

May our Lady hide us in her mantle and may our Lord and his Angels bestow on us every good grace. 

May our Blessed Lady be highly venerated on this, her birthday.   

 

Labor Day Reflection: We Need One Another to Survive

Labor Day makes me mindful of our interconnectedness; we need one another in order to survive. Consider how we are each called to contribute as well as how we benefit from the labor of others:

Even that simple can of corn you pull from the grocery store shelf has thousands of people standing behind it: from those who stock the shelves to the truckers who transport the product to the store; from the regional warehouse workers to the rail operators who supply the warehouse; from the farmers and harvesters to the granary workers. Then there are others such as those who supply fertilizers that aid in growth and those who developed innumerable agricultural technologies over the years. People also labored to build the roads and rails over which the products travel. Others supply fuel for the trucks, combines, and locomotives. Coal miners work hard to supply the electricity needed all along the way. Still others in banking and business take risks and supply the funds to run agricultural, transportation, and food distribution businesses and networks. The list of people who have worked so that you and I can buy that can of corn at the store is almost endless.

Thanks be to God for human labor; we help each other to survive!

As today is Labor Day in the United States, it seems good to reflect on some teachings about human labor from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). In the list below, the text from the catechism is italicized while my comments appear in plain red text.

1. Human labor precedes Original Sin and hence is not an imposition due to sin but rather part of our original dignity.

God places [Man] in the garden. There he lives “to till it and keep it.” Work is not yet a burden, but rather the collaboration of man and woman with God in perfecting the visible creation (CCC #378).

Note that our dignity is that we are to work with God to perfect creation. Adam and Eve were told by God to fill the earth and subdue it (Gen 1:28). Radical environmentalism often presents a far more negative view of humanity’s interaction with the environment. While we have not always done well in treating the environment, it is wrong to think of the created world as better without humanity’s presence. Rather, it is our dignity to work with God in perfecting nature. Note also the description of work as not burdensome prior to the advent of sin. Man and woman did have work to do, but it was not experienced as a burden. Only after Original Sin did work come to be perceived in this way: Eve would bring forth her children in pain and Adam would only get his food by the “sweat of his brow” (Gen 3:16, 19).

2. Human work is a duty and prolongs the work of creation.

Human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another. Hence work is a duty: “If anyone will not work, let him not eat” [2 Thess 3:10]. Work honors the Creator’s gifts and the talents received from him (CCC #2427).

See again the emphasis on our dignity as collaborators with God in the work of creation and in perfecting what God has begun! Not everyone can work in the same way. Age and handicap may limit a person’s ability to perform manual labor. Further, talents and state in life tend to focus one’s work in specific areas. All, however, are called to work in some way. Even the bedridden can pray and offer their suffering for the good of others.

3. Work can be sanctifying and redemptive.

[Work] can also be redemptive. By enduring the hardship of work in union with Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth and the one crucified on Calvary, man collaborates in a certain fashion with the Son of God in his redemptive work. He shows himself to be a disciple of Christ by carrying the cross, daily, in the work he is called to accomplish. Work can be a means of sanctification and a way of animating earthly realities with the Spirit of Christ (CCC #2427).

In his mercy God has not forsaken sinful man. The punishments consequent upon sin, “pain in childbearing” and toil “in the sweat of your brow,” also embody remedies that limit the damaging effects of sin (CCC # 1609).

Sin has brought upon us many weaknesses and selfish tendencies. Work can serve as a remedy through which we are strengthened unto discipline, contribution to the common good, and cooperation with others in attaining good ends.

4. Work is an acceptable sacrifice to God.

[The] laity, dedicated as they are to Christ and anointed by the Holy Spirit, are marvelously called and prepared so that even richer fruits of the Spirit maybe produced in them. For all their works, prayers, and apostolic undertakings, family and married life, daily work, relaxation of mind and body, if they are accomplished in the Spirit—indeed even the hardships of life if patiently borne—all these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. In the celebration of the Eucharist these may most fittingly be offered to the Father along with the body of the Lord (CCC # 901).

5. To work is to participate in the common good.

Participation [in the common good] is achieved first of all by taking charge of the areas for which one assumes personal responsibility: by the care taken for the education of his family, by conscientious work, and so forth, man participates in the good of others and of society (CCC # 1914).

We work not only to benefit ourselves but also to contribute to the good of others and society in general. We do this first by caring for our own needs to the extent possible, thus not burdening others unnecessarily. We also contribute to the common good by supplying our talent and work in such a way as to contribute to the overall availability of goods and services in the community. We supply our human talent and the fruits of our labor to others, while at the same time purchasing the goods and services of others.

The key word seems to be “dignity.” Human work proceeds from our dignity as collaborators with God in perfecting and completing the work of creation. Everyone can work and should do so in the ways possible for him or her, not merely out of a sense of duty but also because it is the essence of dignity.

To return to our opening theme, here are some lyrics from the song “I Need You to Survive”:

I need you, you need me.

It is God’s will that every need be supplied.
You are important to me, I need you to survive.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Labor Day Reflection: We Need One Another to Survive

The Obligation of Clear, Compassionate Correction of the Sinner – A Homily for the 23rd Sunday of the Year


We live in times in which there is a widespread notion that to correct sinners is to “judge” them. Never mind that it is sin that we judge, not the sinner. Never mind that in accusing us of judging, the worldly-minded are themselves doing the very judging they condemn. Never mind any of that; the point of the charge is to try to shame us into silence. Despite the fact that Scripture consistently directs us to correct the sinner, many Catholics have bought into the notion that correcting the sinner is “judging” him. In this, the devil, who orchestrates the “correcting is judging” campaign, rejoices; for if he can keep us from correcting one another, sin can and does flourish.

Today’s Gospel is an important reminder and explanation of our obligation, as well instruction on how we should correct the sinner and be open to correction ourselves. Let’s look at it in four steps.

I. PRESCRIPTIONJesus said to his disciples: “If your brother sins (against you), go and tell him.” I placed “against you” in parentheses because although some ancient manuscripts contain this phrase, many do not. While some interpret this Gospel to command correction only when someone sins “against you,” none of the other texts we will review today contain this restriction. For the purpose of this reflection, I will favor those manuscripts that do not include the phrase “against you.”

Notice the brief but clear advice that when we see someone in sin, we ought to talk with him or her about it. Many, probably due to sloth, prefer to say that it’s none of their business what others do. Jesus clearly teaches otherwise.

In this teaching, Jesus is obviously speaking to the general situation; some distinctions are helpful and admissible in specific instances. For example, one generally has a greater obligation to correct people in grave matters than in less serious ones. One is more compelled to correct those who are younger than those who are older. One is more obligated to correct subordinates, less so, superiors. Parents are strongly duty-bound to correct their children, but children are seldom obligated to correct their parents. The general rule, however, remains: all other things being equal, there is an obligation to engage in Christian correction. Jesus says, “If your brother sins, go and tell him.”

There are many other Scriptures that also advise and even obligate us to correct the sinner. Some of the texts also speak to the way in which we should correct.

  • My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins (James 5:19).
  • Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any sin, you who are spiritual should recall him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal 6:1).
  • Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom. (Col 3:16)
  • And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all (1 Thess 5:14).
  • Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him (Lev 19:17).
  • Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand (Ez 3:17).

Hence, in charity, we have an obligation to correct someone who has gone over into sin. In correcting we ought to be gentle but clear. Further, we ought to correct with humility and not fall into the temptation of acting as if we are “superior.” Our goal is to limit sin’s effects and to apply necessary medicine to the problem of sin.

We will see more “correction texts” in a moment, but for now, let the first point be repeated: if your brother sins, talk with him about it.

II. PURPOSEIf he listens to you, you have won over your brother. Here, let us just briefly note that the point of this correction is to win a brother or sister back to the Lord; it is not to win an argument or to show superiority. The point is to contend with Satan, by God’s grace, and to win the person, who is in Satan’s grasp, back for God.

III. PROCESS – The Lord next sets forth a process for fraternal correction. It would seem that the process here is generally for more serious matters and that all these steps might not be necessary for lesser ones. For addressing the general situation in which a brother or sister is in a state of serious and unrepentant sin, the following process is set forth:

1.  Go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. This first step is often omitted in our fallen, gossip-prone, human condition. If a person is in sin, too frequently we will talk to everyone except the actual sinner about it. This is usually not helpful and in fact merely compounds the sin: the sinner goes uncorrected and sin multiplies through gossip. Satan gets a high return on his investment, often netting many sinners for the price of one.

Jesus is clear: speak to the sinner himself, first. There may be situations in which we need to seek advice from someone we trust about how best to approach the sinner, and sometimes we may need to check a few facts first, but such lateral discussions ought to be few and only with trusted individuals. The Lord is clear: step one is to go first to the sinner himself.

2.  If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.” This sort of option may seem difficult today in our cosmopolitan settings, but such things can occur in the right circumstances. Often these sorts of team efforts are called “interventions” and they are frequently done in the cases of addicts who resist treatment. Sometimes, too, it is used when a certain family member is engaging in hurtful practices such as demonstrating severe anger, refusing to forgive, or causing division within the family. Such interventions are usually conducted by several family members whom the person trusts and they often receive training of some sort before doing so. Depending on the gravity of the matter, these interventions are both necessary and counseled by the Lord as part of a method to end destructive and sinful behaviors.

3.  If he refuses to listen to them, tell the Church. This presupposes that the Church is experienced in a personal way and that the individual is connected to a body of believers who matter to him in some way. The presumption is that these are people he knows (e.g., pastors, parish leaders). This is not always the case in modern parishes, which can be large and impersonal and where many can attend yet stay on the fringes. Rather than simply dismissing this step as unrealistic, we ought to see it as setting forth an ideal of what parishes ought to be.

For those who have some relationship to the Church, this step needs to be considered in cases of grave sin. As a pastor, I have sometimes been asked to speak to someone’s family member who is in serious sin. Presuming other measures have been taken, I often do speak to him or her to warn about such things as fornication, cohabitation, abortion, drug use, anger issues, and disrespect for parents.

To be honest, though, unless the individual has more than a superficial membership in the parish, such talks are of limited effectiveness. Further, the word “Church” here should not be seen merely as meaning clergy. Sometimes there are others in the Church who ought to be engaged, such as leaders of organizations to which the person belongs, older parishioners (to speak to younger ones), and so forth. I have often engaged a team to speak, especially to younger people.

4.  If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Here we come to a matter of some controversy: excommunication. Treating someone as tax collector or Gentile is a Jewish way of saying, “Have nothing more to do with such a one; let him be expelled from the community.”

Some today object to the use of excommunication and often suggest, with some superiority, that “Jesus would never do such a thing.” Yet Jesus Himself is teaching us here to do this very thing. Excommunication is not a punishment to be inflicted upon someone simply to be rid of him or her, but rather as a medicine to bring forth repentance. In addition, excommunication comes only at the end of a long process; it is not something that that Church rushes to do. But it is taught here as well as elsewhere in Scripture. Consider some of the following examples:

  • We instruct you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who walks in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us (2 Thess 3:6).
  • If anyone refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother (2 Thess 3:14).
  • It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor 5:1).
  • Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” Come to your right mind, and sin no more. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame (1 Cor 15:33).
  • But rather I wrote to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one. Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? (1 Cor 5:11)

So there is a fairly strong, clear biblical mandate from both Jesus and St. Paul that excommunication may at times have to be used. It would seem from the texts we have surveyed that the purpose of excommunication is two-fold: to protect the community from the influence of serious sinners and to be a medicine to urge the wayward Christian unto saving repentance.

If any would doubt the seriousness of excommunication or think nothing of the Church’s solemn declaration of it, note that Jesus indicates that He will recognize the Church’s authoritative declaration: Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Thus, let no one make light of the Church’s solemn declaration in such matters.

Today there is increasing demand for bishops to use this measure more often, especially for those who openly support and help fund abortion. It seems clear from the Scriptures we have surveyed that such a measure can, and at times should, be used at the end of a process such as Jesus describes. If one is directly involved in abortion—either by having one, performing one, paying for one directly, or directly assisting a woman to have one—he or she is automatically (self) excommunicated.

What of “Catholic” politicians and jurists who advance the availability of abortion and vote funding for it? Most (but not all) bishops have made a prudential decision not to make use of this measure for “Catholic” politicians who support abortion (or same-sex “marriage,” for that matter). Most of them say that they are concerned that it would be perceived as a political act rather than a moral shepherding of these wayward souls, and because the action would likely be misinterpreted and falsely portrayed by the media, they consider it unwise to excommunicate.

Bare minimum – It is not my role as a priest to critique bishops on whether or not they choose to excommunicate; bishops must make prudential judgments. At a bare minimum, I would hope that every Catholic (politician or not) who even comes close to procuring an abortion or advancing its availability to others has been privately instructed and warned by his pastor (or bishop in the case of prominent individuals) that if he does not change, and dies unrepentant, he will almost certainly go to Hell. Likewise, those of any prominence who help to advance other serious moral evils should be strongly admonished by pastors/bishops to return to the truth.

It is simply too serious a situation to leave a sinner of this magnitude uninstructed, unrebuked, or in any way unclear as to the gravity of the matter. The sinner should be instructed—yes, warned vividly—to repent at once and to refrain from Holy Communion until confession can be celebrated following true repentance.

IV. POWERAgain, amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.

The Lord is showing here how our unity will bring strength. How can we have unity in the Church if there isn’t agreement on basic moral principles and behavior? Thus fraternal correction not only helps the sinner, it helps the Church by helping to preserve our unity in the truth of the Gospel. Central to the truth that unites us is the moral law of Christ and His Church. Fraternal correction increases our unity and makes us and our prayer stronger.

Sadly, today it is evident that our unity and the power of our prayer as a Church is greatly diminished by the disunity among us and the way in which many continue for too long without being corrected by the Church. We are not a force for change because we are divided on the very truth that is supposed to unite us. Much of our division is further rooted in our failure to teach with clarity and correct the sinner.

Much work and prayer are necessary today to unlock the power of which the Lord speaks in today’s Gospel.

On Being a Fool for Christ

In today’s first reading (Thursday of the 22nd week of the year) St. Paul writes:

Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.”So then, no more boasting about men! (1 Cor 3:18-21).

Ah, to be a fool for Christ! Now that is a wise thing indeed. But it is so daring and frightening that few even among priests and religious get there. To be a fool for Christ is to be mocked, scorned and hated by this world, to be the butt of jokes, to be held in derision. How many of any of us are willing to accept this? We have such a powerful instinct to fit in, be liked, be approved by men. The martyrs of the early Church accepted death for proclaiming and living Christ but we can barely endure a raised eyebrow! Maybe it is ambition that keeps us from the goal. Maybe it is an overly developed wish to live in peace with the world. Maybe it is fear or maybe it is just plain laziness. But few of us Christians can bear the notion of really being thought a fool by this world and so we desperately strive to fit in.

If you evangelize or really seek to live the gospel, expect to get it with both barrels. Expect to be scorned, rebuffed and ignored. Expect your children and grandchildren to roll their eyes and say, “There you go again.!”  Expect a fallen away member of the family to ridicule you and recite your own past sins. Evangelizing and living in counter-cultural ways is hard. Sometimes the fruits seem lacking despite repeated attempts. And it is often our own family members that grieve us the most.

But all of this is just fine. We have to remember that in spite of negative reactions we haven’t done anything wrong. We often think, probably from childhood, that when some one is angry at us we have done something wrong. Not necessarily. Sometimes it means we have done something right. A doctor often causes pain and discomfort in order to bring healing and so it is that the Word of God is sharper that any two edged sword. Sometimes people are angry and “hurt” because we have done something precisely right. The protest of pain often precedes the healing that follows.

But in the end, the biggest obstacle to evangelization is our fragile ego. We are often so afraid to incite a negative reaction, to incur another’s wrath or even worse, ridicule. Perhaps we will be asked a question we cannot answer or the other person will “out maneuver” us with Bible quotes and “win” the argument. Perhaps a fallen away family member will succeed in embarrassing us about our past sins. Perhaps it is just too painful to be told “no” again by a spouse or child who refuses to go to Church. Perhaps we will end up feeling like a fool.

And there it is, that word again: fool! Are you and I willing to be made a fool for Christ’s sake? Are we willing to risk ridicule and failure in order to announce Jesus Christ? The world has gone mad and the Gospel is “out of season.” More than ever the Lord needs a few fools to risk ridicule and hatred to proclaim his gospel to a hostile world that often thinks it is a foolish doctrine that is hopelessly out of touch.

It is said that among some of the Monks of the Orthodox Church it is common to place upon their tombstone the phrase: “Fool for Christ” Not bad. I pray that I will increasingly live a life worthy of the title. And if I do, kindly grant me the favor of inscribing on MY tombstone: “Fool for Christ.”

Here’s a little video showing forth Christ as “fool.”  After this discourse the cry went up, “How can anyone take him seriously!” (Jn 6:60)

What is Hedonism? More Than You Think.

In yesterday’s Gospel Jesus set forth the need to accept the crosses of our life and carry them. As we reviewed in yesterday’s homily notes, crosses are not merely the big sufferings in life such as disease, the death  of a loved one, the loss of a job, and so forth. There are also the daily crosses of self-discipline, hard work, obedience, setbacks, consequences for our decisions, limits to what we can do, and the cross of resisting temptation.

Opposed to this teaching from the Lord is hedonism. Most people today link hedonism with sexual excess and perhaps drinking. But Hedonism is a far wider notion and it is why St. Paul said: We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 For 1:23). To the Jews, Christ crucified was a stumbling block since they believed that anyone hung from a tree was cursed by God (see Deut 21:23). But to the Greeks and Romans, the cross was an absurdity due to the widespread philosophy of hedonism among them. So what is hedonism?

Hedonism is the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life. It comes from the Greek word hēdonē, meaning “pleasure” and is akin to the Greek hēdys, meaning “sweet.”

Of course pleasure is to be desired and to some degree sought, but it is not the only good in life. Indeed, some of our greatest goods and accomplishments require sacrifice: years of study and preparation for a career; the blood, sweat, and tears of raising children.

Hedonism seeks to avoid sacrifice and suffering at all costs. It is directly opposed to the theology of the Cross. St. Paul spoke in his day of the enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things (Php 3:18–19). As noted, he also taught that the cross was an absurdity to the Gentiles (1 Cor 1:23).

Things have not changed, my friends. The world reacts with great indignation whenever the cross or suffering is even implied. So the world will cry out with bewildered exasperation and ask incredulously of the Church, are you saying that a woman who was raped must carry the child to term and cannot abort? Yes, we are. Are you saying that a “gay” person must live celibately and may never “marry” his or her same-sex lover? Yes, we are. Are you saying that a handicapped child in the womb must be “condemned” to live in the world and cannot be aborted and put out of his (more accurately our) “misery”? Yes, we are. Are you saying that a suffering person cannot be euthanized to avoid the pain? Yes, we are.

The shock expressed in these sorts of questions shows how deeply hedonism has infected the modern mind. The concept of the cross is not only absurd, it is downright “immoral” in the hedonist mentality, which sees pleasure as the only true human good. To the hedonist, a life without enough pleasure is a life not worth living, and anyone who would seek to set limits on the lawful (and sometime unlawful) pleasures of others is mean, hateful, absurd, obtuse, intolerant, and just plain evil.

When pleasure is life’s only goal or good, how dare you, or the Church, or anyone seek to set limits on it let alone suggest that the way of the cross is better or required! You must be banished, silenced, and destroyed.

Many faithful Catholics in the pews are deeply infected with the illusion of hedonism and thus take up the voice of bewilderment, anger, and scoffing whenever the Church points to the cross and insists on self-denial, sacrifice, and doing the right thing even when the cost is great. The head wagging in congregations is often visible if a priest dares to preach that abortion, euthanasia, in vitro fertilization, and contraception are wrong regardless of the cost, or if he speaks about the reality of the cross. The faithful who swim in the waters of a hedonistic culture are often shocked at anything that might limit the pleasure that others want to pursue.

Hedonism makes the central Christian mysteries of the cross and redemptive suffering seem like something from a distant planet or a parallel and strange universe. The opening word from Jesus’ mouth, “Repent,” seems strange to the hedonistic world, which has even reconstructed Jesus Himself to be someone who just wants us to be happy and content. The cry goes up, even among the faithful, doesn’t God want me to be happy? On this basis, all kinds of sinful behavior is supposed to be tolerated because insisting on the opposite is “hard” and because it seems “mean” to speak of the cross or of self-discipline in a hedonistic culture.

Bringing people back to the real Jesus and to the real message of the Gospel, which features the cross as the way to glory, takes a lot of work and a long conversation. We must be prepared to engage in that extended conversation with people.

Trademarks of the True Messiah – A Homily for the 22nd Sunday of the Year

In Sunday’s Gospel the Lord firmly sets before us the need for the cross, not as an end in itself, but as the way to glory. Let’s consider the Gospel in three stages.

I.  The Pattern that is Announced – The text says, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.

The Lord announces not only the Cross but also the Resurrection. In effect, He announces the pattern of the Christian life, which we have come to call the “Paschal Mystery.”

The expression “Paschal Mystery” refers to the suffering, death, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus as a whole. The word “Paschal” is related to the Hebrew word for Passover, “Pesach.” Just as the shed blood of a lamb saved the people from the angel of death and signaled their deliverance, so does Jesus’ death, his Blood, save us from death and deliver us from slavery to sin.

So He is announcing a pattern: the Cross leads somewhere; it accomplishes something. It is not an end in itself; it has a purpose; it is part of a pattern.

St. Paul articulates the pattern of the Paschal Mystery in this way: We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body (2 Cor 4:10). It is like an upward spiral in which the cross brings blessings we enjoy. We often circle back to the crosses God permits, but then there come even greater blessings and higher capacities. Cross, growth, cross, growth—so the pattern continues until we reach the end, dying with Christ so as to live with Him.

This is the pattern of our life. We are dying to our old self, to this world, to our sins; but rising to new life, rising to the Kingdom of God and becoming victorious over sin. The cross brings life; it is a prelude to growth. We die in order to live more richly. An old spiritual says of this repeated pattern that “every round goes higher, higher.”

Do you see the pattern that Jesus announces? Neither the Lord not the Church announces the cross so as to burden us. No, the cross is part of a pattern that, if accepted with faith, brings blessing, new life, and greater strength.

II.  The Prevention that is Attempted – The text says, Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

Notice Peter’s exact wording: “No such thing shall ever happen to you.” We ought to ask, “What such thing?” Peter, in precluding that Jesus suffer and die, also implicitly blocks the rising and glorification of Jesus, for Christ cannot rise unless He dies.

Peter, of course, is not thinking this all the way through—but neither do we when we seek to avoid crosses for ourselves or to hinder others improperly from accepting their crosses. The cross brings glory and growth; we run the risk of depriving ourselves and others of these if we rush to eliminate all the demands and difficulties of life. We may do this through enabling behaviors or perhaps by spoiling our children.

We also hinder our own growth by refusing to accept the crosses of self-discipline, hard work, obedience, suffering, consequences, limits, and resistance of temptation. In rejecting the cross we also reject its fruits.

All of this serves to explain Jesus’ severe reaction to Peter’s words. He even goes so far as to call Peter, “Satan,” for it pertains to Satan to pretend to befriend us in protesting our crosses while really just wanting to thwart our blessings. Peter may not know what he is doing, but Satan does—he seeks to become an obstacle to Jesus’ work.

Jesus’ severe reaction is rooted in protecting our blessings.

III. The Prescription that is Awarding – Jesus goes on to teach further on the wisdom of and the need for the cross. The text says, Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay all according to his conduct.”

The heart of Jesus’ teaching here is the deep paradox that in order to find our life we must lose it. More specifically, in order to gain Heaven, we must die to this world. That dying is a process more so than just an event at the end of our physical life here. Although we cling to life in this world, it is really not life at all. It is a mere spark compared to the fire of love that God offers; it is a single note compared to the great symphony God directs.

Jesus instructs us to be willing to exchange this tiny, dying life for that which is true life. The Lord says that whatever small blessings come from clinging to this life and this world are really no benefit at all.

Of course what the world’s cheap trinkets offer is immediate gratification and evasion of the cross. We may feel relief for a moment, but our growth is stunted and those cheap little trinkets slip through our fingers. We gain the world (cheap little trinket that it is) but lose our souls. It’s a total loss, or to use a modern expression, it’s a FAIL!

Jesus’ final words, however, remind us that the choice is ours. The day will come when He will respond to our choice. Either we accept true life and win or we choose the passing, dying life of this world and lose.

This song speaks of life as a kind of spiraling climb between cross and glory. As the spiritual says, “Every round goes higher, higher, soldiers of the Cross.”

 

Paradoxes of Evangelization

There are mysterious aspects to the growth or decline of the Church. Jesus said,

This is how it is with the Kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how (Mark 4:26-29).

Thus, the Lord teaches that much of the growth in the Kingdom of God is mysterious; it works “we know not how.”

Perhaps with this and other things in mind, St. Paul further developed the paradox in today’s first reading (Friday of the 21st Week of the Year) of God’s ways of reaching the world. What we tend to think is good “marketing” does not seem to impress God. He delivers to the world a message that is not popular, but because it is of Him it wins the day. Consider this passage:

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord” (1 Cor 1:20ff).

Consider some of the paradoxical and countercultural ways in which St. Paul says that must we engage the world:

  • The cross, not comfort – Many people today say that we should speak more tenderly. We should be more positive, less demanding, and more merciful. We should strive to be known more for what we are for than what we are against. It is said that honey attracts more than vinegar, but clearly St. Paul and the Holy Spirit don’t agree, for we are exhorted to preach “Christ crucified” even though this is an absurdity to the world. Let us not forget to manifest our joy, but even in doing so let us not neglect to embrace the paradox of the cross.
  • Fools more so than formally educated – Studying and learning have their place. Learn your faith well and be prepared to defend it with patience and love. Parishes need to do a better job of teaching the faith to those who would spread it. However, we must not equate learning with godly wisdom. As St. Paul notes, the early Church did not draw foremost from the educated classes, but rather from the humble, the poor, and the uneducated. They won the ancient world not merely by learning, but also by joy, faith, courageous martyrdom, and simple virtue.
  • Apologetics but not apologies – Notice that St. Paul accepts that many in the world call us foolish. Apologetics has its place (so that we can reach the reasonable of this world by explaining and setting forth the reasonableness of faith), but it involves explaining and defending the faith, not making apologies for it. It is easy to make the mistake of trying to make the faith agreeable to others, watering down truths that challenge or forever delaying talking about the “hard” truths. Jesus started with the hard things. “Repent!” was His opening word. Whatever methods we choose, we cannot through endless prudence forever postpone proclaiming the whole counsel of God, in season and out of season. Some will scoff and say, “This is a hard saying who can endure it?” (John 6:60) A true apologist has not necessarily lost when someone scoffs; he has only lost when he fails to proclaim the whole faith. Scoffers may reconsider; those who reject the truth may repent; but truth unspoken, distorted, or watered down is a total victory for Satan.
  • Pure more than palatable – “Marketing 101” principles would say that in order to sell our “product” we should try to make it palatable to our target audience. However, faith that is made too palatable is almost certainly not the faith at all. True evangelization does not fit easily into the tidy categories of marketers and sociologists, who are often horrified at how “off-message” the faith can seem to the modern world. Even in the Church, many people demand that the faith be conformed to what the majority of people think. Remember, God has been at this just a little longer than marketers and publicity folks. His paradoxes have a way of winning the day when the ephemeral and fickle views of the world fade away.

Should we continue to do everything we can to spread the faith through various media, dynamic training opportunities, and trying to get the widest possible exposure? Sure! Today, at least, this is how we prepare the soil, sow the seed, and help to cultivate.

However, in humility and serenity, we must also accept that there are mysteries to what works and what does not. Growth sometimes comes out of nowhere for no discernible reason. God often surprises us with sudden growth spurts that are hard to explain. Meanwhile, we must work as best as we can and do what seems wisest.

How about a little humility that allows paradoxical things to work (paradoxical because they do not conform to the rules of the world)? How about a little humility that is willing to listen to God? We are always asking God to bless what we do. Why not (at least occasionally) find out what God is already blessing and do that?

Paradox and mystery may well have a lot more to do with effective evangelization than all our grand plans and glossy marketing campaigns.

Lord, we seek a miraculous catch of fish in our day and we are open to surprises. Keep us faithful to your teachings, which are “out of season” today. Help us to cast your nets faithfully and to be willing, like Peter, to cast them where you say even if it does not agree with our own instincts. And, like Peter, may we experience the astonishing miracle of a great catch that will make us fall to our knees in wonder and humility at the mystery and paradox of your work. Have mercy on us, Lord, and work—often in spite of us—to enrich your kingdom in ways “we know not how.” In Jesus’ name, Amen.